Irrevocably Queer, Irretrievably Femme: Contemplating Barbie Dolls

A 2023 Prism Commission, Aferro Publication No. 44

Pictured: Drawings #1 and #14, respectively, from Adrian Piper’s 1967 “The Barbie Doll Drawings.” Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

To be read while viewing Adrian Piper’s The Barbie Doll series (1967)

Hands. Feet. Heads. Arms. Legs. Breasts. Disconnected, popped out from their sockets. Rearranged, replaced, reconfigured. Taken from their native lands, forced into a disjunctive diaspora of fleshing. If these parts had a home, we wouldn’t know it, other than our total assumptions of bodies and genders. When we relinquish them, as Adrian Piper had done in these freehand drawings—allowing her body-mind to take over the script, possess the hand of orientation, of aesthetic placement—we unlock a rubric shattered by queer permutations and combinations of biological matter, chemical composition, and social performances. 

In Drawing #14, the doll form emerges from the page as the calculation of an abstract geometric paradigm, shapes tetris-ed into the form we would call a body, call a woman, or as predictive text suggested “body, function, system” in place of woman. We might ask, then, what body-function-system does Piper uncover?

The drawings create a corporeal vocabulary of decomposition and recomposition. Here are plans, schematics, for a plane where parts exist where they should not be—legs multiply, heads loom as an obtuse fusion—parts hold other pieces of the body that they would not normally be independent of. The asymmetry of parts in Drawing #8, doubled, quadrupled, negated, are attached by a sticky and syrupy goop, as if the plastic had been burned and fused and pulled apart again. This sight, slightly unnerving, slightly familiar, stirs provocations. 

At first glance, we might want to question the deranged nature of the artist’s mind: what kind of Frankensteinian modifications and alterations would Piper allow willing subjects to make? Or, we might question, as I do: what is our collective resistance to the queer mortification of gender’s social scripts as they are wedded to the hormonal and fleshy infrastructures that dictate the body’s composition—its sexual characteristics? What of Barbie’s passive performances of gender plasticity that resemble Piper’s performance experiment Mythic Being (1973-1975), where she changed the presentation of her race, gender, and class out in public?

The overwhelming femmeness of Barbie’s components, of Piper’s composition, has more to do with our ready-made process of categorization for these parts—though no sex exists—than any innate essence in Barbie’s materiality. We imbue Barbie with the power of the female. We call her a feminist icon as we paint the earth and the sky under a bubblegum banner. Barbie, femme and gender bendy empress, is famously known to have all female parts, save one. (The most important, others will say.) Her breasts supple and wanting, peeking and teasing against any material wrapped around their heft, predetermine the visuality of her lost secret cave of subterranean philosophy. The twoness of her breast in the frame of our minds engenders a vaginal and triangulated imaginary, we populate her body with the belief of something that she cannot supply. Where vaginas should/could be they do not appear, leaving in their absence, or in the small bump of a tucked maneuver, the mark of rumbling questions we dare not ask aloud: Is Barbie a woman? Does she represent womanhood? Is Barbie some other third thing? Is Barbie trans?

Piper’s drawings are the enzyme to a process known as trans-genderism, a queer orientation of gender in tango with bodily material, overdetermined by its expression of gestures already deemed feminine in a historic-choreographic vault. If Barbara did belong to an exclusive and exclusionary sorority that was dependent on the vagina as a valued gash, the lump of flesh as price for membership, then the corruption of Barbie’s sexual-political leadership would deem her delinquent and ineligible for membership into her own sisterhood.

(The policing of this female institution is taken up by everyone. Everyone is a cop when it comes to protecting the bounds of female sex. Everyone has a thought [or two] about who gets to call themselves a woman, what parts equate to womanhood, what struggles are exclusive only to women. In this way, everyone catches a stray; no one can be woman or feminine enough, especially those silently outfitting femme lives for themselves, tucking and draping whatever materials they can get to rearrange and re-appropriate femininity in the dark. 

Only girls play with Barbies — to the chagrin of every feminine boy that’s ever lived. Femme boys get barred from the primary object of sensual and affective experimentation; boys aren’t supposed to be too concerned with their bodies until they need to look like G.I. Joe to get a Barbie. The truth is Barbie was only ever for white girls, as she was a political attempt by a middle class mother to redeem femininity from the image of pin up sex dolls popularized during war times. She would save the sex by de-sexing her, leaving her neutered would keep young girls ambitious and chaste. Barbie could teach you how to be desired by men, but not how to actively wield your own sensuousness towards other ends. 

And Barbie, a relic of a white first-wave bourgeois feminism, would not be able to escape her hellish and racist legacy. Christie, or L’Chrysanthemum Nichole O’Neill, her Black counterpart, was created in 1968 as the direct result of political action of Black Power activists, who had started to create dolls for Black children. To her PR team, Barbara would come off less white supremacist, less totalitarian, less nationally socialist, if she had a racialized Other as a friend, despite her German ancestry. Christie, the Black Barbie, would rarely be seen with Barbie during playtime because Black parents were hesitant to buy a white doll for their children, especially in the wake of the doll tests used in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1950. Though Christie would be widely popular with Black children, she was discontinued in 2005-2006 for her much lighter younger sister, Nikki.)

Notwithstanding the social problems that Barbie’s mythic lore recreates, she also gives us a way to reconsider our allegiances to stabilized gender categories. If Barbie could be the emblem of a previously known, tried and true sexual and gender pattern, her biology would match. But Barbie is not an expert on biology. She leaves more questions for us to go in search of; she is a queen of trans-gender play, a darling of gender passing. Barbie and friends scramble our desire to have wholesale knowledge about who we can be, the chicken scratch impulse to delineate borders so we can ‘roam freely.’ We want to make sure we know that we are safe inside of the psychedelia of our own bodies. And sanction brings safety, who would’ve thunk it?

I received my first and only Barbie doll when I was four years old. It was a Black Dr. Ken doll and I had always wanted one of my own. This version I believe the person who gifted me this imaginative vision of a Black professional man was a way to let soft boi troizel know that he could be whatever he wanted. The cellophane barrier was no real obstacle between the two. I would map desires onto this doll in ways that I couldn’t yet imagine: fantasies of the future, of desire, of sexuality. Before anything could actually materialize, Dr. Ken was taken away from me and thrown away because Barbie dolls were for girls, even though the doll represented the correct gender and race combination for me at that time. 

The new male presence in my home wouldn’t allow me to be some sissy or even marginally resemble one. I was devastated at how quickly my relationship to this queer imagining had been severed. Dr. Ken was the entryway to some grave depravity slipping in through the cracks, a femininity not allotted to a male body, though I have been in an intersex body since birth. Dr. Ken was not the container of childlike wonder and fantasy as I had thought; he could not liberate me from disciplinary gender protocols or even serve as a model for the gender I had been assigned because he was a Barbie. 

Something about him was irrevocably queer, irretrievably femme. I don’t think I ever got over this separation until I became the doll, until I decided to create myself each day, brand new, out of the box, transiting masculinities and femininities. In some way, what Piper illustrates for us is the very conundrum of gender as a stable category, as anything other than abstract concepts drawn to dictate and control our body’s material that has no name, no gender. And that, if we want the abolition of gender, it’s in our hands.